The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, which was published in anticipation of Marianne Moore’s centenary in 1987, presents all of her published prose except for letters, interviews, and quotations in the writings of others. The body of the text consists primarily of reviews and essays in chronological order of publication; the works published when Moore was editor of The Dial (1921-1929) are subdivided by kind into reviews, “Comment” (the name of a regular feature in The Dial), and “Briefer Mention,” containing one-paragraph notices of books published. The appendix comprises separate sections for “letters to the editor,” dust-jacket blurbs for the works of others, miscellaneous short pieces, book lists, and questionnaire responses. The editor, Patricia C. Willis, curator of the Marianne Moore Collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, supplies a four-page introductory appreciation and notes of the original place and date of publication at the end of each piece.
Although Moore’s reputation will continue to be based primarily upon her poetry, this collection affords readers the opportunity to trace over the course of some sixty years her influence as a critical reader and her refinement as a prose stylist. Her acutely perceptive sensibility and delicately resilient control are displayed everywhere in the text, and by making available virtually the whole corpus of her work, this volume reinforces Moore’s important position in twentieth century American letters.
Even the earliest works, eight stories and a review published between 1907 and 1909 in the literary magazine of Bryn Mawr College, Moore’s alma mater, show the characteristically precise diction that later typified all of her writing, even though the felicity of language in these pieces is obscured by mannered, derivative settings and slight plots. In spite of these defects, however, the undergraduate pieces are interesting because they show that Moore’s turn to nonfiction prose and criticism was deliberately chosen, not coerced through lack of other talents: In her later career, she abandoned fiction in favor of poetry, and prose became the medium through which she surveyed the literary world. These stories do not hint at the acute critical intellect that, within fifteen years of their publication, would establish itself as a potent voice in American literary culture.
To be a literary critic requires first of all that one be a reader. The “Briefer Mention” section shows more succinctly than any other how broad and deep Moore’s reading ran. These capsule reviews are marvels of economy and productivity: Few of the 125 she published in The Dial ran to more than 250 words, and to some of the monthly numbers she contributed as many as four short notices. Books of poetry, criticism, and literary history predominate, but the number also includes works on history, politics, art, music, philosophy, and the popular culture of various historical periods. This breadth of reading, astonishing in itself, is matched by the terse and pungent (although seldom pugnacious) judgment of the work’s quality and worth. In poetry and other literary works, Moore swiftly picks out the best and most original elements in each book, pointing out, where necessary, infelicities or “disaffecting” characteristics that mar its quality. In other works, Moore states the principal subject or argument, summarizes its development, and finally judges its success and stature in the range of work on similar subjects. In each case, regardless of the work’s kind or quality, Moore demonstrates a sympathetic understanding both of the author and of the reader: On the one hand, she points out excellences that might escape a hasty reader; on the other, she warns against the superficial or defective reasoning of an inexpert writer. Considered as a part of Moore’s own work overall, the “Briefer Mention” section accurately outlines her intellectual wealth and range for the larger portrait that the rest of the volume completes at greater length and with finer detail.
Important in this larger portrait are the numerous longer reviews that Moore wrote throughout her career. Her manner in the capsule reviews is characteristic also of the full-scale reviews that appeared not only in The Dial but also in The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. As a whole, the longer reviews provide ample insight into and definition of the sometimes vague phrase “a woman of letters.” Whatever her other concerns and interests, from these reviews it is apparent that Moore was in touch with the key movements not only in American letters but also with parallel forms and movements in England and Europe.
The list of poets whose work she reviewed includes most of the major names in modern literature in English as well as many less familiar. From these reviews can also be traced a genealogy of modern poetry with its complex...